The organisation buying the Thorngrove garden centre in Gillingham will use it as a centre for vocational training for young people with special education needs and a hub for new local businesses. In addition to the existing garden centre at the site the new owners Employ My Ability plan to open a café and possibly a florist service and a health and beauty salon too, all run on business lines. ‘We aim to make it like a little commercial zone but with learning taking place alongside,’ says Steve White, one of the directors of the Dorset-based organisation which specialises in vocational training and qualifications for young people aged 16 to 25 who have special educational needs.
‘It should increase employment opportunities locally for support workers as well has people within those businesses,’ says Steve White. ‘The businesses have to run on their own and our guys learn alongside staff that work inside there.’
The Thorngrove centre in Common Mead Lane is currently owned by disability charity Scope but last year it was put on the market because it was losing money and the number of people using its services was in decline. Now Employ My Ability, which was set up in 2015 and which runs a vocational training centre at Moreton in Purbeck, has agreed to buy the centre and is hoping to exchange contracts sometime this month. Scope will continue to look after the 18 or so disabled people who currently use the services at the centre while the new company develops its vocational training and businesses. ‘We want to make sure that there is no change for the guys who are already there,’ says Mr White, who says they eventually plan to have around 25 youngsters at Thorngrove, taking courses that are aimed at youngsters for whom mainstream schools and colleges are ‘not quite working out’.
The exact training and work they do will be linked to the kind of businesses that Employ My Ability establish. The vocational training institute already has a small plant nursery at Moreton so they see the garden centre in Gillingham as a good fit. ‘It will be an extension of what we are already doing here at Moreton and we will hopefully create more vocational opportunities like a florist’s, maybe we could look at health and beauty and put a small salon in there. We will definitely put in a café,’ says Steve White.
He adds: ‘The aim is to to create businesses which are effective in themselves and which are visited by members of the public. Last year we had 60,000 visitors to the Moreton site.’
The young people who will be taught at Thorngrove will be drawn from a 30-mile radius, meaning it will cover North Dorset, East Somerset and South-West Wiltshire, with the local authorities funding the training. ‘We provide the vocational training and the qualifications and then we support people into work in their local communities,’ says Steve White. ‘We can also support any employers that offer them opportunities.’ The emphasis of the establishment is on using industry professionals to run the site’s businesses, with specialist teachers providing the theory and meeting the special education provision.
Thorngrove Garden Centre was established in 1968 and currently enables disabled people to develop their horticultural skills under guidance from trained staff. But not only does Employ My Ability want the existing disabled people who use the centre to stay on, they may also offer them a chance to be ‘mentors’ – if they want. ‘We are looking to use their knowledge and expertise to teach some of our younger guys,’ says Steve White. ‘And we will be keeping the Thorngrove name.’